Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bangladesh waking up to impact of Yunus case?

Photo: US president Barack Obama confers Prof Muhammad Yunus with coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom

AMY KAZMIN

FOR MONTHS, the Bangladesh government has waged a bitter battle against Nobel peace prize-winning economist Mohammad Yunus – a course of action that many have warned would hurt Bangladesh’s international reputation.
As supporters of Yunus in the US congress issued fresh appeals on his behalf this week, is it possible Bangladesh authorities are finally waking up to the potential consequences of their campaign?

Yunus was due to go on trial in the Supreme Court on Tuesday but that hearing has now been postponed for two weeks.


The decision came as US senator Dick Durban, the assistant majority leader, led a bipartisan letter to prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on Tuesday informing her that Congress members were “troubled by what appears to have been a months-long effort on the part of the Bangladeshi government to discredit professor Yunus and remove him as managing director, while increasing government influence at Grameen Bank.”

US congressman Jesse Jackson earlier called Bangladesh’s effort to remove Yunus “a direct attack on its civil society”.

Separately, the 26 members of the congressional Bangladesh caucus warned that the campaign against Yunus was “beginning to overshadow” what had been a strengthening US-Bangladesh relationship in areas ranging from economic cooperation to defence.

The congressmen called for a compromise deal that would, in the words of one letter, “treat Mr Yunus with the dignity he deserves”.

While there is no direct link between the US warnings and the postponement of the trial, there is talk of increasing nervousness within Sheikh Hasina’s government about continuing its campaign.

Nevertheless, it seems certain that Yunus, now 70 and a decade beyond Grameen’s official retirement age, will have to give up his job as managing director of the famed micro-lender. He has called for a “smooth transition” at the bank, to avoid what now appears to be a government-orchestrated hostile takeover.

In a letter last year recently made public by his supporters, Yunus proposed to A M Muhit, finance minister, that he step down as managing director and that the government – which has three voting members on the 12 member board – support his appointment as Grameen Bank chairman.

That arrangement obviously did not appeal to Sheikh Hasina, who has made little secret of her antipathy towards her country’s best-known citizen – who in 2007 slammed politicians and proposed starting his own political party to clean up Bangladesh’s public life.

But with US legislators piling on the pressure – and given the importance of the US market to Bangladesh’s top export, garments – many Bangladeshis are hoping she will reconsider and accept a deal that could end this nasty fight. #

First published in The Financial Times, London, Britain, March 16, 2011